An Englishman's England
NOTHING more surely indicates the state of flux or change in which the Old World to-day finds itself than the production of books now going on which have for their aim the depicting of European society and institutions, not only as they are but also with some reference to what they are likely to become. As an individual at a certain time of life begins to consult his looking-glass with novel sensations of curiosity, suspicion, or mild regret, on noticing distinctly the alterations that time is producing, these nations of the Eastern hemisphere — and in particular the English — no longer take themselves for granted with that ease and confidence which they once enjoyed. The process of the individual’s reflection, however, is with them almost reversed : it is not so much the signs of age which they begin to note, as the traces of novelty. The Old World is rapidly becoming a new world, and is naturally much interested in the discovery. Recent English writers have come to recognize with increasing explicitness— sometimes in a tone of complaint, at other times with satisfaction, but no longer with any attempt at concealment or indifference — the influence of America upon Europe. To the stimulus of surprise is added the impulse toward scientific observation of man in his present condition and every-day activity. In the capacious volume prepared by Mr. Escott,1 the author offers, in his review of modern English culture and literature, the not wholly novel suggestion that the habit of observation so industriously exercised in the study of nature for the last twenty or thirty years may in the next age be applied to the domain of morals. This extension of the scientific function has already begun. M. Taine’s Notes on England and studies of Parisian life bear witness to the new method of studying social phenomena, the traces of which are also constantly met with in other books and in a multitude of magazine articles ; and the systematic registration of such phenomena leads directly to a similar study of morals. The concrete form of morals, indeed, makes one of the main objects of notice in a book like the one we have before us. Of the new class of sociological works on a large scale, the series of works for which Wallace’s Russia may be said to have supplied the model, followed by Baker’s Turkey and McCoan’s Egypt, gives us the paramount examples ; and to it has now been added Mr. Escott’s England, which we praise highly when we say that it is worthy of its predecessors. It is, to use the author’s words, “ not an encyclopaedia, but a survey;” yet Mr. Escott has collected an amount of statistics which makes it to some extent encyclopaedic in character, and several of the chapters are contributed by other writers. That on Commercial and Financial England is by Mr. J. Scot Henderson ; Mr. Arthur Griffiths contributes that on Criminal England, a task for which, as inspector of prisons, he has had special facilities ; and two chapters, on the Law Courts aud on Philosophy and Thought, are the work of a barrister of the Inner Temple and of a lecturer in New College, Oxford. Besides these auxiliaries, Mr. Escott cites a number of public men, chiefly Liberal members of Parliament, who have given him essential assistance.
The object of his undertaking is, primarily, to present to his countrymen a complete picture of themselves and their institutions; for, as he remarks with truth, although every one in England knows that that country has local selfgovernment, few know how it is actually administered, and although much has been written learnedly concerning English laws and polity, these have been considered not so much in their mutual workings as in “ the theory of their mechanism while at rest.” But the scheme so well carried out gives a result equally interesting to observers of other nationalities, and in this country above all, Mr. Escott’s panoramic view will be scrutinized with the utmost eagerness by thoughtful persons and competent publicists. The method of review adopted by the author in the case of institutions is applied to classes and occupations, to the condition and organization of commerce, to the social system, to art, religion. literature, and even amusements. The chapter on popular amusements, it may be said, though full of pertinent information, goes perhaps beyond the due boundaries of such a survey, when it discusses the possibilities of a Shakespearean revival; and elsewhere there are occasional slight lapses into diffuseness or what, strictly speaking, is irrelevant matter. But where the field to be traversed is so wide and the intelligence of the author so alert and sympathetic, these instances may easily he excused. Following the true inductive plan, Mr. Escott begins with the simpler elements of his theme, ascending to the more complex developments, and arriving at the general from the particular. After depicting an English village, he describes the estates of great landlords and their management, and rural and municipal government. Two vivid and forcible chapters are devoted to Towns of Business and Towns of Pleasure. The working classes, pauperism and thrift, cooperation, hotels, education, all come in for their share of careful consideration; and as we mount in the scale we are brought to what the author calls “ the social revolution,” which precedes his minute and curious account of the structure of English society, wherein details of precedence somewhat amusing are introduced. The relations of society and politics, of “ crown and crowd,” are discussed with a masterly grouping of facts, and in a philosophic way, yet with a vivacity that renders the pages devoted to them intensely absorbing; and these are followed by dissertations on official England, Parliament, the government services, professional England.
In his opening pages, Mr. Escott makes some striking admissions and Statements. In the light of our own struggle over the distribution and the centralization of political power, it is startling to read here that the Municipal Corporation Act of over fifty years ago, securing local self-government, has practically been overridden by the growth of great towns, and again by the supreme system of minute bureaucratic rule reaching out from London through the length and breadth of the kingdom. “ The self-government of villages has almost disappeared ; ” but simultaneously with this concentration of power in the metropolis, the spread of democratic ideas is wide and active. Another trait of contemporary England which the author notes with a critical eye is the prevalent desire for expansion, for a large imperial policy ; and this he attributes partly to an “ imported idea of vastness ” from America, partly to the practical desire to find room for careers, and in a measure also to the sentimental consideration of the army and the pride which the aristocracy or the increasing wealthy class takes in military achievements. But while he recognizes that England is in a transition stage, he brings to light in all the strata of society strong conservative forces, the outlining of which conveys an indescribable sense of the stability of the English order. His sketch of a typical village reads almost like a chapter from a novel. He takes in general an optimistic view of the status both of agricultural laborers and of operatives, and it must be confessed that nowhere in our republic, the paradise of workingmen, can there be found conditions apparently so favorable as those described as existing on the Duke of Northumberland’s estates. In the workingmen’s clubs in the towns and London, nevertheless, Mr. Escott intimates that democratic ideas and American influence are uppermost; although the “ leavening process ” — by which is meant the constant improvement going on in the condition of many people — is in several places mentioned by him as being guided not by democratic but by aristocratic influence. The British farmer is represented as seldom taking an enlightened view of his position, and the conception of citizenship and its duties “ has yet to be quickened in all classes of the community.” Municipal government enlists the cooperation of its subjects more heartily ; but Mr. Escott has to make the usual admission, charged with a selfish solace to the American reader, that the confusion of local governments in London probably costs the metropolis over six million dollars more annually than it ought to spend. Everywhere this record shows an increase of luxury in the population, side by side with a relaxed condition of trade, which in the opinion of Mr. Henderson has a good deal to fear from competition in America and India, and in the excess to which adulteration has been practiced. Turning to the social side of the national life, we are told that since the Reform Bill of 1832 the structure of society has changed materially. A blending of plutocratic and aristocratic elements forms the one standard of “ social position ” to-day ; the prestige of achievement supersedes that of factitious position. The Briton is losing his insularity and gaining in cosmopolitanism ; French tastes are effecting powerful changes, even to the extent of increasing laxity in marital ties; women are becoming emancipated. This last fact the author regards hopefully, though he places but a low estimate on English feminine education as it is at present. Boys and young men, on the other hand, have made a great advance in taking responsible views of life early, and in the intelligent view of history and current affairs which the custom of competitive examinations has fostered. It would,be impossible even to summarize here the many points of interest touched, by the England of Mr. Escott. The book is not without its faults and weaknesses. The chapter on Pauperism and Thrift is strangely deficient in statistics, being mainly a treatise on the best method of dealing with pauperism, better fitted for a magazine than for a survey of tills kind. In discussing literature and art, too, the writer is less at home than with other themes, and is inevitably somewhat unsatisfactory. Still, we are indebted to him for a splendid series of essays, which, while they necessarily repeat much that we already know, are valuable in their unity and comprehensiveness. It would be hard to decide, from the perusal of them, what the predilections of the author and editor are, in disputed questions ; and this is as it should be. He seems to be strongly persuaded that monarchy is the keystone of the British system, hut admits that ultimately the democracy rule the country, and upholds the caucus idea. He quotes, also, the opinion of a distinguished statesman, expressed to him, that the progress of modern democracy may “ gradually absorb the monarchy into a presidency, without cataclysm or even struggle.” In conclusion, and with reference especially to the colonies, he affirms that the empire is politically in a state of potential disorganization, and suggests that England may he forced to choose between imperial federation and subsidence into a third-rate power. Such is the view of modern England by a modern Englishman, and — as probably the most nearly complete résumé of the subject within similar bounds, which has been produced — it must be looked at not merely as a book in the conventional sense, but also as an important fact.
- England: Her People, Polity, and Pursuits. By T. H. S. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 3880.↩